Ku­nitz in odd spot, faces for­mer team

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette - - High Schools / Hockey - By Sam Werner Sam Werner: swerner@post-gazette.com and Twit­ter @SWern­erPG.

TAMPA, Fla. — Chris Ku­nitz’s ten­ure in Pitts­burgh hardly could have had a bet­ter end­ing.

Scor­ing a Game 7 dou­bleover­time win­ner in the East­ern Con­fer­ence fi­nal, en route to his fourth ca­reer Stan­ley Cup ti­tle, is the stuff of sto­ry­books.

But it didn’t take long af­ter the cel­e­bra­tions and pa­rade died down for re­al­ity to set in. Ku­nitz, set to face the Pen­guins Thurs­day night for the first time as a mem­ber of the Tampa Bay Light­ning, said he knew shortly into the off­sea­son that his time with the Pen­guins likely was fin­ished.

“I think the writ­ing was on the wall for them the whole time,” Ku­nitz said Thurs­day morn­ing.

“Even­tu­ally, it comes down to mak­ing de­ci­sions and the fu­ture of your team. Ob­vi­ously, Pitts­burgh has a lot of highly-skilled young for­wards that were push­ing the en­ve­lope even the last cou­ple of years to get more ice time. It’s just part of the busi­ness.”

Ku­nitz cer­tainly holds no ill will against his for­mer team — he’s still good friends with many of his old team­mates and has en­gaged in some “nor­mal friend­ship ban­ter” lead­ing up to this game — but he was hop­ing the Pen­guins would leave Tampa Thurs­day night with a loss.

“Just be­cause they’re some friends and peo­ple you spent a lot of time with, it doesn’t mean you’re go­ing to take it easy on them,” Ku­nitz said. “Maybe you’ll know some of their tricks of the trade that can hope­fully help your team pull out a win.”

If any­one knows the nu­ances of the Pen­guins su­per­stars, it’s Ku­nitz, who came to Pitts­burgh in a trade in 2009. In nine sea­sons with the team, he was a reg­u­lar on Sid­ney Crosby’s left side, and was one of the five play­ers to play on all three Pen­guins Stan­ley Cup teams.

In July, he signed a oneyear, $2 mil­lion con­tract with the Light­ning as an un­re­stricted free agent. Even though they were up against the salary cap, the Pen­guins likely could have matched the con­tract — or at least come close — but, as Ku­nitz said, they ap­par­ently made the de­ci­sion to move on and get younger.

Ku­nitz wasn’t tech­ni­cally a mem­ber of the Pen­guins when he en­joyed his day with the Stan­ley Cup this sum­mer, but said he en­joyed it just as much as the pre­vi­ous three (he also won one in Ana­heim in 2007).

“Prob­a­bly more en­joy­able,” he said. “You’re a lit­tle bit older, kids are a lit­tle bit older. They all re­al­ize they get to have a party with their friends and this is one of the first years we’ve ac­tu­ally had it in the morn­ing and been able to spend some time alone at our house with it with the kids.”

Ku­nitz said he chose the Light­ning, in part, be­cause of the chance to get an­other day with the Cup next sum­mer. Tampa Bay was one game away from the fi­nal in 2016 be­fore los­ing in Game 7 of the East­ern Con­fer­ence fi­nal to Ku­nitz and the Pen­guins.

“You look at the po­ten­tial of the room and the guys that they have, the cal­iber of the play­ers,” Ku­nitz said. “Just from play­ing against this team in the past, we knew that they were al­ways a dan­ger­ous team.”

Ku­nitz has done his part to con­trib­ute in his brief time in Tampa Bay. He scored his first goal in blue and white in the Light­ning’s 4-3 come­back win Mon­day night against Wash­ing­ton.

“Kind of knocks some of the nerves off to help con­trib­ute in wins to start your ca­reer,” Ku­nitz said.

“To be able to find one, get on the board and beat a good Wash­ing­ton team. We were down in the game, it’s some­thing that you ob­vi­ously think is spe­cial when you score your first goal in a new uni­form.”

This ac­tu­ally won’t be the first time many of the Pen­guins see Ku­nitz in a Light­ning uni­form, though. When he was dis­placed re­cently by the hur­ri­canes in Flor­ida, Ku­nitz re­turned to Pitts­burgh and skated — in Light­ning gear — with some of his old team­mates.

Ku­nitz said he hoped that hav­ing that brief ex­pe­ri­ence go­ing against his long-time friends might make Thurs­day night a bit eas­ier.

“Not a rude awak­en­ing, but some­thing that took off the edge of maybe play­ing in this game,” he said. “To me, it didn’t look any dif­fer­ent, but, to them, ob­vi­ously I was wear­ing blue and in a dif­fer­ent color out there. I think that hope­fully helped in the tran­si­tion of be­ing here and mak­ing my­self feel wel­come down in Tampa.”

The best way to in­gra­ti­ate him­self in his new city would be con­tribut­ing to a win against the two-time defending Stan­ley Cup cham­pi­ons. Light­ning coach Jon Cooper even said he was hop­ing Ku­nitz would get a goal Thurs­day night against his old team.

“I know just in the short time he’s been here, what he prob­a­bly meant to Pitts­burgh in all the years he was there,” Cooper said. “He’s just some­body you want on your team. I’m pretty sure over there they’ve got a lot of re­spect for him.

“I know Chris Ku­nitz is not go­ing to change the way he plays. He’s got the Bolts colors on now and he’s go­ing to do ev­ery­thing to help us win. I’m just glad he’s on our bench and not theirs.”

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